Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Ignorance of the Poet

There is a certain ignorance the poet must achieve if she is to write honestly; and it has various levels.  One is the ignorance of the outcome of the poem at the outset—the “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” Robert Frost tells us about.  This is axiomatic enough to be trite although we need reminding every now and then.  Another is the ignorance of truth as writeable—it cannot be written.

One of my pet peeves is the workshop leader who urges us to “write what cannot be written” and then lets us off as we think that the unsayable is something we’re merely afraid to say and that must be said.  This is therapy, not poetry.  Since the truth cannot be written, does not exist in words, what we try to do is create an experience of the presence of truth.  This is not doctrinal in any way although I do draw from Thomas Merton’s Inner Experience in my phrasing.

When I first read “time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea” by Dylan Thomas (in “Fern Hill”) I was gripped by the experience of truth and became a devotee of it on the spot (although I tried not to be for a long time).  I can break down the words and phrasing all I want, interpret the poem all I want but I cannot speak, put into words, the truth of the poem for it lies outside its own words.  This is true with every great poem, the ones that move us in ways we cannot and need not explain and understand.  At best, we can only be present with the poem—but that’s enough, in fact it may be all.

I cannot tell you how to achieve this in your own poems but I can tell you that in order to write you must write a lot.  You must write beyond therapy.  You must write until you are unconscious of your knowledge.  As Matt in The Fantasticks says, “I defy knowledge and achieve ignorance.”

So long for now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Witness This!

Although I write little of it myself, I often remark about poetry of witness, poetry that lives as a testament of something that is remarkable as it exists in the world.  I do not speak of poetry that takes a position, that is partisan, but poetry that looks at something and reveals it to us.   I site the poetry of Muriel Rukyser as an example—she is one of the great under-appreciated poets.

What little poetry of witness I have written is about war as I saw and lived it in Viet Nam and now we are engaged in war in Afghanistan and Iraq and with the access to expression so available in this electronic age an abundance of wartime literature is piling up.  Via two different sources I came to a NY Times story about contemporary war writing.  I urge you to pursue the link and the stories referenced.

It is difficult to write poetry of witness for it takes objectivity,  authentic knowledge and poetic skill.  It is not located close to inspiration on the spectrum of things that prompt us to write and so demands more conscious work at expression.   Yet, it is as witnesses that poets can be especially skilled; after all, observation is our thing although it so often is observation of the unseen.  Poetry of witness calls us to expose what is often readily visible but which remains seen by too few.

Much of the great value of this type of poetry is that it puts the poet at the center of society, a place poets have generally abdicated and, nature abhorring a vacuum, has been filled with less tasteful and honest literature.  So, I call poets to read the news, get into the issues despite the barbarous, despite the censure, despite the savagery of the opinionated who want to prevent us from revealing things as they are.

After all, what is your job as a poet if not to reveal?

So long for now.